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Williams v. Madison County

United States District Court, D. Idaho

August 23, 2019

TRAVIS WILLIAMS and AMANDA WILLIAMS, husband and wife, Plaintiffs,
v.
MADISON COUNTY, IDAHO and the MADISON COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT, a political subdivision of Madison County, Idaho, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          DAVID C. NYE, CHIEF U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Travis Williams' Motion in Limine (Dkt. 186) and Defendants Madison County and Madison County Sheriff's Department's (collectively “Madison County”) Motion in Limine (Dkt. 187).

         Having reviewed the record and briefs, the Court finds that the facts and legal arguments are adequately presented. Accordingly, in the interest of avoiding further delay, and because the Court finds that the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument, the Court will decide the Motions without oral argument. Dist. Idaho Loc. Civ. R. 7.1(d)(2)(ii). For the reasons outlined below, the Court will GRANT in PART and DENY in PART each Motion.

         II. BACKGROUND

         The facts of this case are well known to both parties and the Court will only include a brief recitation here for context.

         Williams was previously employed by Madison County. Madison County terminated Williams' employment on July 27, 2012. At the time of Williams' termination, Madison County operated under the 2006 Madison County Personnel Policy (“MCPP”). On November 9, 2012, Williams filed the instant lawsuit alleging numerous causes of action. After the issues were tried by a jury, the Court entered Judgment on December 4, 2015, requiring Defendants to pay $445, 819.46 in damages, costs, and attorney fees. Dkt. 120.

         Defendants appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and on July 10, 2018, the Ninth Circuit entered its Memorandum Decision vacating and remanding the judgment on Williams' procedural due process claim and award of attorney fees, and reversing entirely the judgment in favor of Williams' wife's loss of consortium claim and Williams' negligent infliction of emotional distress claim. Dkt. 168.

         As part of the original trial in this matter, this Court instructed the jury that Mr. Williams had a property right in his employment as a matter of law. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit found that the Court had given this instruction in error. The Ninth Circuit noted that “there is an issue of fact as to whether Plaintiff had a property right in his continued employment, given the many provisions in the personnel manual, including those disclaiming contractual obligations and reserving management rights, and in light of Mitchell v. Zilog, Inc., 874 P.2d 520 (Idaho 1994).” Williams v. Madison Cty., Idaho, 741 Fed.Appx. 372, 374 (9th Cir. 2018). Based on the Ninth Circuit's decision, the Court entered an order limiting the retrial of this matter to the single issue of “whether [Plaintiff] had a property right in his continued employment with Madison County.” Dkt. 177, at 2.

         In anticipation of the upcoming trial, and pursuant to the Court's trial order (Dkt. 179), both parties filed motions in limine seeking to preclude certain evidence and testimony at trial. While the motions overlap to some degree, for organizational purposes, the Court will address each motion-and each sub-part-in turn as filed by the parties.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         “Motions in limine are well-established devices that streamline trials and settle evidentiary disputes in advance, so that trials are not interrupted mid-course for the consideration of lengthy and complex evidentiary issues.” Miller v. Lemhi Cty., No. 4:15-CV-00156-DCN, 2018 WL 1144970, at *1 (D. Idaho Mar. 2, 2018) (citing United States v. Tokash, 282 F.3d 962, 968 (7th Cir. 2002)). “The term ‘in limine' means ‘at the outset.' A motion in limine is a procedural mechanism to limit in advance testimony or evidence in a particular area.” United States v. Heller, 551 F.3d 1108, 1111 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Black's Law Dictionary 803 (8th ed. 2004)).

         Because “[a]n in limine order precluding the admission of evidence or testimony is an evidentiary ruling, ” United States v. Komisaruk, 885 F.2d 490, 493 (9th Cir. 1989) (citation omitted), “a district court has discretion in ruling on a motion in limine, ” United States v. Ravel, 930 F.2d 721, 726 (9th Cir. 1991). Further, in limine rulings are preliminary and, therefore, “are not binding on the trial judge [who] may always change his mind during the course of a trial.” Ohler v. United States, 529 U.S. 753, 758 n.3 (2000).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. Plaintiff's Motion in Limine[1]

         In his Motion in Limine, Williams moves to be allowed to introduce evidence with regards to Madison County's decision to alter the status of its employees from “for-cause” to “at-will.” He also moves to exclude evidence of Madison County's November 10, 2010 disciplinary action against him and to prohibit Madison County from referencing the idea that a contract is required for an employee to have a protected property interest in employment. The Court will examine each issue in turn.

         1. Evidence related to Madison County's decision to alter the status of its employees from “for-cause” to “at-will”

         GRANTED (with withheld ruling on some issues).

         Williams first requests a court order that allows him to introduce evidence that Madison County changed the status of its employees from “for-cause” to “at-will” after he was terminated. Williams contends that this information is relevant and helpful in understanding the parameters of his employment relationship with Madison County. Madison County filed a similar motion asking that this same information be excluded entirely. In its view, the information is irrelevant, constitutes inadmissible hearsay, and is evidence of subsequent remedial measures. As this cross-motion is arguably the most crucial motion at this juncture, it will be addressed in greater detail than the others.

         As a factual matter, Madison County reviewed and subsequently revised the 2006 MCPP in 2014 and 2015 to clarify that each employee's status was “at-will” as opposed to “for-cause.” During this time, there were numerous commissioner meetings. At those meetings (and elsewhere) Troy Evans, deputy civil attorney for Madison County, explained the differences between “for-cause” and “at-will” employment, discussed the advantages and disadvantages of both structures, and opined generally on the MCPP.

         Many of the 2014 and 2015 commissioner meetings were audio and video recorded. In the recordings, some Madison County Commissioners, as well as other individuals, expressed thoughts on “at-will” and “for-cause” employment, as well as their understanding of what the MCPP required. Additionally, some individuals used phrases such as “new policy” and “changed policy” in the recordings. Williams wishes to introduce this evidence to demonstrate that during the time of his employment with Madison County, he could only be terminated “for-cause.” Madison County denies that there was any “change” to its policy, but rather argues there was only a clarification and that the County Commissioners are free to adopt, modify, interpret, or revise its own policies at any time simply as part of its continuing duties. As for the specific information, testimony, and exhibits Williams will likely seek to introduce on this subject, Madison County objects for three reasons, each of which will be addressed below.

         a. Relevance

         First, citing to Federal Rule of Evidence 401, [2] Madison County asserts that the documents, video, and testimony offered by Williams are irrelevant. The Court disagrees.

         Williams contends that in order to evaluate whether a person has a protected property right in their employment “all the circumstances surrounding the relationship” must be considered. See Mitchell v. Zilog, Inc., 874 P.2d 520, 523 (1994). Madison County agrees, but asserts that the scope of these events (which took place approximately two to three years after Madison County terminated Williams) are niether relevant nor related to his actual termination. In its estimation, “the only relevant evidence to consider on this issue is the actual language of the policy that was in effect at the time of [Williams'] termination of employment, which was the 2006 MCPP.” Dkt. 187, at 6. This argument, however, is undercut by Madison County's own admission that the changes were implemented directly as a result of three employment lawsuits-including this one. Clearly, the subsequent changes are related and relevant to Williams-even if separated in time. To be sure, it is undisputed that the 2006 MCPP was the governing document at the time of Williams' termination, but a finder of fact is entitled to consider other evidence (within reason) in an effort to understand that particular policy.

         As a side argument, Madison County asserts that Troy Evans “is not an elected official . . . not a representative of Madison County . . . does not have the authority to bind Madison County . . . does not have the authority to interpret the language of the MCPP . . . [and] as such, Mr. Evans opinions or statements are not relevant to any issue for the jury.” Dkt. 187, at 6. The Court finds this position questionable.

         While it may be true that “the county commissioners and elected officials are the only Madison County agents with authority to adopt policy, interpret policy, and bind the county, ” that does not mean that Evans testimony is irrelevant or inadmissible.[3] Evans was an attorney working for Madison County. It is his job to give legal advice to the individuals that adopt, interpret, and bind the county. Evans was the one who lead the discussions regarding the “change, ” answered questions, and gave recommendations.

         Madison County is free to cross examine Evans and/or argue that Evans' statements were his opinion and non-binding, but the fact remains that Evans' testimony is relevant.[4] Moreover, Evans' testimony could also be important for impeachment purposes. Accordingly, the Court finds the 2014-2015 revisions (and Evans' testimony) are relevant to the current action.

         b. Hearsay

         Next, Madison County asserts that the testimony proffered is inadmissible as it constitutes hearsay. Williams submits that he will be able to lay the appropriate foundation and defeat any hearsay objection. The Court cannot rule on this issue at this time as it does not know the specific questions, answers, or objections that will be raised during trial. Both sides should be prepared to argue these issues at trial outside the presence of the jury.

         c. Subsequent Remedial Measures

         Finally, Madison County argues that the 2014-2015 revisions to the MCPP are subsequent remedial measures and that the Court should exclude them accordingly.

         Federal Rule of Evidence 407 outlines that:

When measures are taken that would have made an earlier injury or harm less likely to occur, evidence of the subsequent measures is not admissible to prove:
• negligence;
• culpable conduct;
• a defect in a product or its design; or
• a need for a warning or instruction.

         But the court may admit this evidence for another purpose, such as impeachment or - if disputed - proving ownership, control, or the feasibility of precautionary measures.

         “Rule 407 is based on the policy of encouraging potential defendants to remedy hazardous conditions without fear that their actions will be used as evidence against them.” Pau v. Yosemite Park & Curry Co., 928 F.2d 880, 888 (9th Cir. 1991).

         Madison County asserts that it made the changes in the MCPP policy in response to this-and other pending-lawsuits, and that had the policy been in effect previously, it would have made the injury less likely, i.e., it contends that this is a textbook example of a subsequent remedial measure. The Court is not convinced.

         The Court acknowledges the change may have resulted in less employment lawsuits for Madison County-although the Court does not know that for a fact-but more importantly, the “change” was not necessary to make that happen. Said differently, this is not the typical situation, such as in a product-liability case, where something is “broken” and needs to be fixed. A “for-cause” employment policy is completely legal, acceptable, and enforceable. In the end, while Madison County choose to go with an “at-will” policy as opposed to a “for-cause” policy it did not have to do so. The one was not remedial of the other. Each system has advantages and drawbacks, but are nothing more than different approaches.

         Madison County's argument is further undercut by statements made by its own people and its later arguments in opposition to ...


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